Joe Pesci Is Most Funny When He’s Most Terrifying

The Oscar-winner, back now in ‘Bupkis,’ has earned a reputation as a compelling, intimidating onscreen presence. So how come he also makes us laugh so much?
Joe Pesci Is Most Funny When He’s Most Terrifying

It’s very possible Joe Pesci’s most famous scene is also his funniest. You know the one.

As the menacing gangster Tommy DeVito, Pesci horrifies, boring into Ray Liotta’s panicked Henry Hill until the kid’s almost convinced violence is about to erupt. Nobody who saw Goodfellas back in 1990 thought the scene was funny initially — we were too nervous about what Tommy was capable of doing — but its unexpected punchline brought with it an explosive laugh from audiences, probably mixed with a little relief. Pesci’s patter, inspired by an actual incident when he was a waiter attending to a grumpy real-life mobster, was improvised, with director Martin Scorsese only letting Pesci and Liotta know ahead of time that he wanted them to riff, thereby ensuring the other actors’ tense reactions. The sequence is hysterical because it’s so terrifying.

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This has been a specialty of Pesci’s for some time. The octogenarian actor has been mostly retired this century, occasionally getting in front of the camera when a project really interests him, like 2019’s The Irishman. And now he’s back for Bupkis, in which he plays Pete Davidson’s cancer-stricken grandfather. The initial reviews for the Peacock series have been glowing for Pesci, although some lament that the Oscar-winner isn’t given enough to do. Even so, Bupkis finds ways for Pesci to do his thing.

Because he’s such a celebrated dramatic actor — his Academy Award was for Goodfellas, and he received nominations for Raging Bull and The Irishman — Pesci can be slightly under-appreciated for his comedic talent. But an undercurrent of edgy humor has often been woven into even his most serious roles, and eventually he’d capitalize on his natural funniness. Not that any of this should be a surprise: As a young person, he appeared on TV, doing impressions of celebrities like Jackie Gleason and the superstar comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. (Remarkably, he was also part of a two-man comedy/music act with Frank Vincent, who went on to do a bunch of Scorsese films and The Sopranos.) 

But Pesci had just about given up on a life as a performer when Scorsese and Robert De Niro convinced him to star in Raging Bull. Playing Joey, the younger brother of De Niro’s paranoid, temperamental boxer Jake LaMotta, Pesci was a natural with the script’s shit-talking dialogue, proving to be an excellent verbal sparring partner with De Niro. Raging Bull is a grim study of a tortured man — you could never call it a comedy — but in Joey’s exasperated responses to his bullying brother, Pesci brought a “regular guy who’s had it up to here” surliness that made their scenes darkly funny. In Raging Bull, it’s Jake who’s the scarier character, but you can feel Joey’s growing anger — especially when Jake goads his little bro into punching him in the face. The scene has the brilliantly inane banter of a Seinfeld episode, except with a threat of bloodshed that finally comes to pass. 

He continued acting throughout the 1980s, including in the crime epic Once Upon a Time in America, but his next signature part didn’t arrive until 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2, where he played motor-mouthed government witness Leo Getz. It was his biggest straight-up comedic role at that point in his career — he’s the comic relief, annoying his protectors Riggs and Murtaugh to no end — and although Leo is one of Pesci’s most beloved characters, a little of the guy went a long way. (This is also something you could say about Lethal Weapon 2 and its sequels, which became cartoonish action-comedies that paled in comparison to the original’s grittier, grownup, thrilling tone.) That said, Pesci did his best, although it doesn’t help that Leo isn’t particularly intimidating — he’s just a pipsqueak wiseass who won’t shut the hell up. But I have to give credit where it’s due: Decades later, whenever I have to go through a drive-through, Leo’s wise warning always rings in my ears.

The following year was huge for Pesci. It would be impressive enough to land Goodfellas, reuniting with his Raging Bull director Scorsese, but Pesci was also part of 1990’s biggest hit. Nobody went to Home Alone for him, but the family comedy made him a household name as Harry, a klutzy burglar who, with his partner Marv (Daniel Stern), picks the wrong house to break into. 

“It was a nice change of pace to do that particular type of slapstick comedy," Pesci said last year. “But the Home Alone movies were a more physical type of comedy, therefore, a little more demanding.”

In other words, he took a lot of abuse in that film.

Home Alone and 1992’s Home Alone 2: Lost in New York were rambunctious, surprisingly violent kids’ films, and while Pesci didn’t bring the same intensity to the role that animated the horrifying Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, part of what made Harry funny was just how much he despised that little brat Kevin (Macaulay Culkin). Harry wasn’t scary, per se, but Pesci leaned into this thief’s bad streak and arrogance, certain he could outsmart an eight-year-old — which made his angry, painful reactions to being hit, burned, scarred and shocked all the more entertaining. If, on some level, audiences didn’t want to see this jerk get his brutal comeuppance, the Looney Tunes-style slapstick wouldn’t have worked.

Still, it’s ironic that Tommy’s signature line from Goodfellas — “I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?” — is, essentially, what Pesci does in Home Alone, unashamedly going for broad laughs. He’d do something a lot more sophisticated with Goodfellas, fashioning a mobster whose hair-trigger temper meant he could blow up at any moment, and at anyone. And yet, there was this weird innocence about Tommy — like he wasn’t aware of what a nightmare human being he was — that made him endlessly funny, even charming. Pesci is one of the reasons why Goodfellas is so alluring, presenting the gangster lifestyle as superficially inviting and intoxicating. We shouldn’t like Tommy, but deep down we kinda love him. 

“What I do is think of somebody that I know very well who is the same type, and play him,” Pesci once explained. “I do my Tommy. I do Joe Pesci as if I were this killer, this crazy, funny, wisecracking person.” 

The way Tommy darts from dead-eyed sociopath to backslapping buddy is never not alarming, but the sedate Tommy seems unaware of his Hyde-like other half. That tension gives every scene this comedic frisson, especially when there’s nothing actually frightening going on. Now appreciated not just as a great mob picture but as an extremely dark comedy, Goodfellas is particularly funny when, after executing another gruesome killing, Tommy goes to visit his mom, played by Scorsese’s own mother Catherine. The scene possesses a grisly subtext — Tommy lies about why he needs a knife and why he’s got blood on his car — and so their dinner-table chit chat provokes boisterous laughs. His mom doesn’t know what’s humorous about that moment, but we sure do. (By the way, this scene, like the “I’m funny how?” sequence, was improvised.)

Winning an Oscar only further burnished Pesci’s reputation, and Home Alone’s blockbuster status made him bankable. So he was perfect to then play a street-smart Brooklyn lawyer named Vinny who travels down to Alabama to defend his cousin and his buddy, who have been charged with a murder they didn’t commit. That sounds like the premise for a searing legal drama, but My Cousin Vinny was, instead, a fish-out-of-water comedy highlighted by Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning turn as Vinny’s girlfriend and Pesci’s insecure, peacocking lawyer, who’s actually never tried a case before.

“The idea of going from Goodfellas to Vinny was pretty thrilling because he brought all of that credibility playing a guy who was pretty damn tough,” producer Paul Schiff said. “But putting that tough character in a situation where he is over his head and struggling to win this complicated case was just a really funny, rich situation. Joe has a particular intensity that is very credible. He has that streetwise swagger that just played into the character beautifully.”

Tomei proved to be My Cousin Vinny’s scene-stealer, confidently portraying the prototypical big, brassy broad who’s not gonna put up with any guff. By comparison, Pesci was practically the straight man, but this was the best he ever was as a leading man, finding a no-bullshit character who worked well at the center of a film — as opposed to the margins, where most of Pesci’s creations feel more comfortable. 

Unfortunately, in the 1990s, Pesci took on a lot of star vehicles that tried to play off his gruff-guy comedic persona. But movies like The Super, Gone Fishin’ and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag were a waste of his time. Truth is, he was funnier at the time in dramas, whether playing the electrifyingly anxious David Ferrie in JFK or the Tommy-esque vicious gangster Nicky Santoro in Casino. Neither role was comedic, but Pesci imbued the roles with such vivid, frightening immediacy that you recoiled and laughed in equal measure. When Pesci found worthy material, his bulldog ferocity — his “get outta here with that” bluntness — was startlingly funny. But when he didn’t — his final film before his soft retirement was 1998’s dreadful Lethal Weapon 4 — he flailed, morphing into self-parody. That was never truer than that same year when he put out the album Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, where he “played” a lounge singer based on his My Cousin Vinny role. The only laughs here are of the cringe-y, unintentional kind.

Most figured The Irishman, where his mob boss Russell Bufalino is a winning mix of quietly imposing and unexpectedly uproarious — particularly when he’s dealing with his ball-busting wife — would be Pesci’s swan song. But now he’s returned for Bupkis, not so scary but certainly a warm, welcome presence opposite Davidson. When Pesci shuffles off this mortal coil, hopefully many years from now, obituaries will talk about what a commanding, gripping presence he was on screen. But hopefully they won’t forget how hilarious he was at the same time. Few actors have been both simultaneously so brilliantly. 

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